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Fun while it lasts

A-Rod's hot April only makes his departure more likely

Posted: Monday April 23, 2007 10:30AM; Updated: Monday April 23, 2007 12:56PM
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Alex Rodriguez is on pace to shatter April records for home runs and RBIs, but it doesn't mean he'll still be a Yankee come next April.
Alex Rodriguez is on pace to shatter April records for home runs and RBIs, but it doesn't mean he'll still be a Yankee come next April.
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Alex Rodriguez was one of many players who told us he came to the Yankees to win a World Series ring. Well, if things continue this way, he may become the first player who'll want to leave the Yankees for that very same reason: to win a ring.

A-Rod's unprecedented hitting exploits have enabled the slumping Yankees, who have yet to win a game in which Rodriguez didn't homer, to go only 8-9 so far. Without A-Rod, they might be 5-12, or worse.

When considering Rodriguez's chances to stay with the Yankees, neither his unmatched season-starting tear nor New Yorkers' accompanying newfound adoration of A-Rod guarantees a thing. Except maybe that he won't ever again have to bat eighth in Joe Torre's lineup -- as he did in last year's Division Series loss to Detroit -- or anyone else's, for that matter. If anything, Rodriguez's extraordinary early play could enhance his chances to leave, as the likelihood increases by the homer that he can secure $175 million or more as a free agent.

In New York A-Rod might never find the type of unconditional love he once sought from his manager, his co-superstar and former bosom buddy Derek Jeter, and from the Yankees' tough fans, who like him just fine for the moment. If you spend some time in the subways or streets of New York, or even the corner coffee shops, as I did this week, you'll know that the chances of him hitting 60 home runs are greater than him ever winning over all the fans. Many of them seem to already have made up their mind to love him only when he's performing superhuman exploits (like his 12 homers, 31 RBIs and ridiculous .986 slugging percentage so far).

As great as A-Rod is now, just enough fans will forget it all the next time he fails to come through in the clutch. The pressure will never subside. And if he happens to fall short of postseason heroism again, he'll never have a shot. So if things look rosy now, there's only a small chance they'll stay that way.

To have come this far under enormous pressure is itself an almost unfathomable accomplishment, a feat impressive enough to assure there will be a multitude of suitors should he opt out of his deal and risk walking away from the $81 million that's coming to him if he chooses to stay a Yankee. Eight teams sought him in trade last year, and at least that many will call if he's free. It'll start with the Angels, but certainly won't end there.

New York should enjoy it while it lasts. Because the smart money says this could be it for A-Rod in New York.

A-Rod's winning formula

Here's, in part, how he turned it all around (as if anyone needs to turn things around after a 35-homer, 121-RBI season):

1. Right away this spring, Rodriguez aired the reality that he and Jeter are no longer best friends, thus unburdening himself of a pressure he didn't need. According to people close to both men, Jeter was extremely ticked off to be thrown back into the middle of a soap opera (if only for a day), but Jeter got through what was to him an annoying day of follow-up questions and Rodriguez benefited by releasing himself from the lie that they were still close.

2. He took a page out of Jeter's book by sanitizing his answers after that first revealing day. A-Rod will never be quite as boring as Jeter (or before him, the King of the Intentionally Dull, Tino Martinez) and he'll eventually slip and say something back-page worthy. But until then, the strategy has helped him concentrate on the ballplaying aspect of his 24-hour job.

3. He lost quite a bit of weight. Rodriguez revealed that he's down to 9 percent body fat from 16. You don't have to be a nutritionist or mathematician to know that's quite a substantial drop. That may be why he's quicker to pitches and doesn't get tied up inside as often, and it can't have hurt his range at third base, either. In spring training, there was some clubhouse chitchat among Yankees pitchers about being nervous when the ball was hit to him. That talk has stopped. The weight loss also doesn't appear to have cost him strength.

4. He's changed some of his pre-at-bat ritual and dropped his exaggerated leg kick, which appears to have sped up his swing and helped make him almost invulnerable to inside pitches.

5. He's become more aggressive at the plate. Scouts were starting to notice how many called third strikes he was taking last year, quite possibly the result of overthinking. "Maybe he went back to tapes of his time in Seattle and Texas. He rarely took a third strike before, and he hit more bad balls for home runs than anyone," one scout said. He has regained that confidence and aggressiveness that made him baseball's most feared hitter.

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